Monday, June 29, 2009

Failed States, Part Two

Man, how funny is that? I don't know, maybe it's better for me because I've read one of his books, but I laugh every time. This hilarious cartoon is used with consent and comes courtesy of, by which I mean that I don't think the guy would mind me using his comic.

Now, without further ado, on to the horrifying and sad truth about our country. That truth being, as Chomsky so painstakingly demonstrates, that the US is not interested in democracy.

"Democracy Promotion Abroad."
Chomsky repeats throughout the closing half of the book that the US supports democracy "if and only if" it serves the interests of the US. So, as the US goes out into the world in order to spread democracy under the guise of a "messianic message" of bringing enlightenment to backwards people, the truth actually couldn't be further from the stated purpose. As Chomsky puts it "aggression and terror must be portrayed as self-defense and dedication to inspiring visions...The history of international crimes overflows with similar sentiments." And it most surely does. I believe I failed to mention this in my colonization blog, but all of the popular images of a tribal, primitive Africa before the Europeans arrived are the products of European justification for invasion. By making the African population seem savage and backwards (which they absolutely were not) the Europeans had an easier time explaining to themselves and their populations why it was necessary to "conquer and destroy them for their own benefit."
Historian Arno Mayer reported after 9/11 that since 1947, "America has been the chief perpetrator of 'preemptive' state terror...always in the name of democracy, liberty and justice." Such was the case in Iraq, and such has been the case in Latin America.
In fact, in an odd and sort of morbid coincidence, there is a date known as "the first 9/11" in Latin America: September 11, 1973. It was a Tuesday, if that helps. Basically what happened was that Chile happened to be "Latin America's oldest and most vibrant democracy," operating successfully under democratic socialism. The US feared that Chile's success and independence would become a "contagious example" among the rest of Latin America, all of which the US sought to control and regulate for its own gain. So, on the first 9/11, General Augusto Pinochet attacked the Chilean presidential palace in a military coup with full support of the US. The death toll, reported at 3,200 but estimated to be double that in reality, would be equivalent in population to an attack within the US that resulted in between 50,000 and 100,000 dead, according to Chomsky. General Pinochet "soon moved to integrate other US-backed Latin American military dictatorships into an international state terrorist program called Operation Condor." This was a program that killed and tortured as routine and without mercy, and while they did so, "Pinochet was greatly honored--by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in particular."
This kind of thing is pretty routine for ruling powers, actually. For the US, the goal is not a peaceful and civilized world, the goal is to run the planet like a business that serves US interests almost exclusively. Fear of democracy comes logically when "successful independent development and steps toward democracy, out of US control, might well have a domino effect, inspiring others who face similar problems to pursue the same course, thus eroding the global system of domination." This kind of thinking led Washington to back the installation of "Europe's first postwar fascist government in Greece in 1967, continuing its support until the dictatorship was overthrown in 1974." The same logic followed with Vietnam and the destruction of Indochina.
As recently as 2002, the US supported a military coup in Venezuela, in which the incredibly popular president Hugo Chavez was overthrown, but reinstated by a popular uprising. The US media later condemned his criticisms of US militarism and capitalism at the UN Summit (which received the loudest applause of the night.)
Similarly, elections in 2004 El Salvador were rigged with US support, the US denies that elections even took place in 1984 Nicaragua, Islam Karimov, the ruthless dictator of Uzbekistan, maintained US support even after a 2005 massacre in which he reportedly boiled people to death, and so on and so on.
Chomsky then asks the reader to consider the situation in Iraq, and really question whether there was ever an exit strategy involved.
"We are therefore being asked to believe that the United States will stand by quietly watching a serious challenge to Israel, its primary regional client, as well as the takeover of the world's largest energy reserves by a Muslim bloc free from US control," he says. I think it's obvious from the atrocities that the US has committed and continues to commit, that this can never happen.

"Democracy Promotion at Home"
Turning away from the slew of crimes that the US commits in the name of democracy throughout the rest of the world, Chomsky uses the final chapter of his book to discuss the way that democracy works within our own country. The simplest observation is: poorly.
Chomsky first discusses the fact that democracy, by definition, is set up to protect the rich from the poor. James Madison (the fourth president of the US) "held that power should be in the hands of the 'wealth of the nation...the more capable set of men." Madison was concerned for the rich because the majority of the population was and will probably always be less than extremely wealthy, and through Madison's logic, the majority could theoretically vote to redistribute the wealth of the nation. So, "civil government, so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor," according to Adam Smith. What's interesting is that in ancient Greece, Aristotle saw the same problems inherent in democracy. However, "Madison's solution was to restrict democracy, while Aristotle's was to reduce inequality." And inequality abounds.
In fact, in the words of Woodrow Wilson, "most men are servants of corporations" and America is "no longer a scene of individual enterprise...individual opportunity, and individual achievement." In a kind of echo of the way that the government exploited the country's fear after 9/11 (like the Patriot Act, for example) Wilson also refers to things like World War I wartime patriotism and the Red Scare as things that were used to "regiment the lower class."
And while people are afraid of terrorism and worried about their financial woes as our economy and the worth of the dollar stagnates and then declines, it's particularly difficult to care about politics, it would seem.
Chomsky points out that political campaigns are run by public relations personnel, men and women that would otherwise be making their living off of selling laundry soap and deodorant. So, as they are basically in the business of misrepresentation and lying, it only makes sense that this is how our elections are presented to the public. As is meticulously documented within the final chapter of Failed States, the general population is generally ignorant of the actual issues involved in an election because of the way the candidates are judged on a "moral image," such as the way that Bush was presented as a fiercely devout Christian. So people make assumptions. Bush supporters imagined that he would agree with them on major issues, when really his policies reflected a very slim margin of the population (hint: they were the ones paying him.) I'm not trying to pick on just Bush, all politics work this way. Think about Obama supporters, myself included. It's easy to think that your candidate will support all of your decisions, despite the fact that Obama shirks gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana.
Opinion polls show that, actually, America is pretty on top of its game as far as what it would like to see happen to the nation's budget. The overwhelming majority of Americans want to sharply decrease military spending and institute national health care. They would also like to see more social spending, more money into education, more taxes for the super rich, and an extraordinary 1090% increase in renewable energy research. The overwhelming majority also thinks that the UN should take the lead in Iraq, as well as all foreign disputes. Unfortunately, public opinion is never discussed this way in the elections, is not covered by our free media, and just overall doesn't matter to the government. A fully functioning democratic society is "a community of people who interact in forming opinions and policies." Instead, we live in a country where, on a scale of 0 to 10, most people rate the will of the people at 4.5 in affecting governmental decisions.
Lastly, Chomsky focuses on the social security fiasco, in which we were all told that Social Security will collapse in our lifetime because the baby boomers are going to retire. Chomsky points out that all of the baby boomers were once children, and if society supported them then, then society can certainly afford to support them now, but this logic is lost. He argues that it makes sense that we lack national health care while our social security is being dismantled, because the super rich experience the benefits of the current health care system but are totally unaffected by social security, which only helps the poor, so it makes sense that it would be "dispatched to the flames."

Chomsky's afterword shows the world of today in the aftermath of the decades of US tyranny, and it's no surprise that many countries are moving away from us. Latin America is beginning to ally itself with China, to move away from their dependence on us, and it is worth noting that Cuba and Venezuela were the chief contributors of doctors and aid to Pakistan after a savage earthquake in 2005. The US has even managed to alienate Canada, who is expected to transfer a quarter of its oil to China after anti-Canadian policies during the Bush administration. Asia appears to be reconsolidating. Iran and China are already allies, exchanging oil for weapons, and Russia and India will most likely take their places in an Asian effort to control the majority of the world's oil. When I think of America during this afterword, I see George Bush standing on a mountain of smoking rubble against a blackened sky, alone, wondering where everyone went.
I will leave you with one of the final paragraphs of the book.
"Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter. Those who take the trouble to adhere to that suggestion will soon be led to abandon a good part of familiar doctrine, though it is surely much easier to repeat self-serving mantras. Such simple truths carry us some distance toward developing more specific and detailed answers. More important, they open the way to implement them, opportunities that are readily within our grasp if we can free ourselves from the shackles of doctrine and imposed illusion," - Noam Chomsky.

I hear that, brother.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

College For Free 4: Colonization Part 2

So let's recap.
Africa, the Middle East and China are all doing extremely well while Europe is throwing buckets of shit out into the streets and burning witches and all other sorts of terrible things during the 12th, 13th and 14th century. Because Europe doesn't get to be part of the club, the Europeans decide to go across the ocean to find something better, at which point they invent the concept of racism and engage in widespread genocide all at once. This allows them to harvest all of the resources from the Americas and return the wealth to their European homes.
A pretty uplifting story, I would say.
But here comes the second chapter of this miserable saga. Europe's return to the Old World.

Before we get started, I think I should make a quick note about the College For Free entries. The point of this blog is to spread interesting information that I came to acquire throughout college, but it's also to sort of explore what I did and did not take away from a $20,000 education. That is to say, if I didn't learn something, you won't either, because I'm trying to stick to what I actually learned from class, and not what I can Google in order to fill in the blanks. Think that's stupid? I don't care. That's how I'm doing it. For that reason, this blog is going to be a lot more about Africa than the Middle East or China, because that's what I learned the most about.

Anyways, here's what happened:
In the blink of an eye (an eye that takes a couple hundred years to blink, anyways) Europe went from being sort of quiet and dirty and off in the corner not bothering anyone to a full on drunken psychopath with serious blood lust and hunger for gold. Their new found wealth gave them almost unlimited resources and a scary amount of power, especially when put into the hands of the people who had so historically been outcast and downtrodden. Trading with Africa quickly turned into kidnapping which turned into slavery. The Atlantic Slave trade, or the Triangle Trade, lasted for like 300 years, and Europe made money off of all sides. They received goods from the Americas, they sold goods to Africa, and they sold slaves from Africa to the Americas.
The assaults on Africa went on from the 1500s to the 1800s, during which time 12.5 million slaves were delivered to the Americas. I think I should note here that the constant onslaught of colonization, the wars, the kidnapping and the utter plundering of resources, made it pretty difficult for countries in Africa and the Middle East to have large scale industrial revolutions, and the effects of this still live on today.
And I should note that I say that the assaults lasted until the 1800s because after 1884 the assaults stopped and the utter takeover began. Up until then, European powers had been working individually, in competition with each other, hoping to get as much as possible for their own individual countries. After a few hundred years of failure, they finally wised up and said "Brothers, sisters, come together. We shouldn't be so selfish. Let's consolidate our efforts and concentrate on murdering, raping, and plundering the Africans only." So in 1884, they held a little thing called The Berlin Conference, the sole purpose of which was to divide and conquer the entire continent of Africa, which they did. By 1914, the only free countries in Africa were Liberia and Ethiopia, and Liberia was only free because the US had founded it in order to return freed slaves to Africa.
Oh yeah, it may not stick out right away, but the colonization of Africa occurred after slavery was abolished in both the US and the UK. Perfect, right?
Most of these colonies lasted until the 1950s and 60s, and were only abandoned under severe international pressure, mostly for things like basic human rights, especially in light of the atrocities in WWII. When the Europeans left, they took everything out of Africa that wasn't nailed down, like literally. Rakes and stuff. Remember how the land of the Truffula trees looked after the Onceler was done with it? That's how I imagine it went down.
Things didn't get much better after that.
Some notable remnants of colonization:
The Hutus and the Tutsies.
Ever seen Hotel Rwanda? The two groups involved in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 were the Hutus and Tutsies, and the only difference between these two groups was the width of their noses and their height. These racial constructs were invented by their European invaders, who routinely established an elite class and a lower class in the conquered countries in order to turn the natives on each other. These kinds of divisions exist all over Africa, to this day, and continue to ruin the lives of millions of people through the warfare that they cause.
Unpayable African Debt.
After European power removed its awful tentacles from the throat of the continent, new African leaders came to power with promises to restore the greatness of their once wonderful land. So international aid flowed in as the world sort of sheepishly said "Hey, sorry about the last four hundred years." And the African leaders kindly thanked the world for their support, stuffed the money into their pockets, and got the hell out of there. And who can blame them? They grew up during European colonialism, they learned from the best thieves in the world. Now almost all of Africa is in debt that they cannot recover from, something that people like George Bush take advantage of and use as an excuse to cut aid that could save lives. Millions of lives.

Colonization affected the world in some other pretty neat ways. Iraq, for example, was completely invented by Europe, without any regard for the differences amongst the people being stuck together. So now we have a country full of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds who hate each other with an astonishing amount of passion.
Also, after 400 years of colonization, Europe became the dominant power in the world, unseating over 1,000 years of Middle Eastern reign as top dog. And they had just enough money from all their centuries of pillaging to really effectively blow each other to smithereens during the first two world wars, which is where much of the gold actually ended up going.

As for China, well, like I said in the last entry, China does okay most of the time (except for that whole baton death march thing during WWII, but that wasn't European, that was Japanese, so I don't feel the need to dwell on it here) and Europe wasn't able to do any real damage there.

That's the bleak and horrible story of European colonization, possibly the worst atrocity of the last millennium, and it was perpetrated by my ancestors. It makes me feel all warm and cozy. Just for a little pick-me-up, my next blog will be about America's war on democracy, Noam Chomsky style.

Friday, June 19, 2009

News and Human Rights 3: Uganda and the LRA

Things haven't been good in Uganda for a really, really long time. As Lindsay put it last night, "Remember The Last King of Scotland?" Yeah, that was Uganda. In fact, I would venture a guess that things haven't been great in Uganda since about 3,000 years ago when everyone was a hunter-gatherer and the worst enemies of the people were lions and crocodiles.
Be that as it may, things are looking pretty grim right now.
Uganda is currently recovering, or trying to recover, from a 23 year war that left the country in absolute ruin. I don't mean a wrecked economy or burned villages or civil war or anything as simple as that. The reality is far more nightmarish. What I mean is the abduction of an estimated 66,000 children who were forced to become child soldiers under penalty of death, some as young as five years old. Children who speak of the murders they were forced to commit in voices still unchanged by puberty, the murders of other innocent men, women and children, some even among their own ranks. Children who tried to escape their captors were brought back and killed by their fellow child soldiers, sometimes hacked to death with machetes, sometimes trampled with bare feet. Of course, these were only the boys. The girls were used as sex slaves, or given as wives to high ranking officers, at which point nearly 100% of them contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Many are now teen mothers, orphans themselves, with no means of survival and no hope.
The group responsible for this is known as the Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, a former witch-doctor turned bat-shit-crazy Christian rebel leader. The Lord's Resistance Army began in 1989 in northern Uganda in armed opposition of the government. At first they were supported, but they were quickly seen for the maniacs that they are, and their support dwindled. This is when they turned to abduction, a practice that they carry out in the name of Jesus Christ, who they claim described the conversion to Christianity as the process of catching fish.
Everything the LRA does is carried out in the name of Christian virtues. Officers sprinkle holy water on the child soldiers before they go into battle, in order to shield them from bullets. It's a good thing too, because the soldiers are specifically forbidden to seek any kind of shelter. For this reason, the LRA's battles are notoriously bloody. (Side note: Members of the LRA are also not allowed to kill snakes or bees. I don't know if that has anything to do with Christianity, but it serves to demonstrate how deranged the LRA is.)
Also, while it is widely disputed just exactly what the LRA is trying to accomplish, it is generally recognized that Kony would like to establish a theocratic government in Uganda based directly on the ten commandments (a contradiction so obvious that I feel it requires no commentary.)
On the warpath to establish his Christian state, Kony is responsible for some of the most obvious and jaw-dropping cases of human rights violations in recent memory. During the height of abductions by the LRA, an estimated 40,000 children would walk for hours every night in order to sleep in the protection of the major towns. The government responded to the LRA's campaign of terror by placing 2 million northern Ugandans into Internally Displaced Persons camps. The IDP camps were so poorly run that, according to one report, 1,000 people died every week due to inadequate health and sanitation provisions. 1.6 million people still live in these camps, and 70% of these people are children.
Today, the LRA has retreated for the most part to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (a shit storm of epic proportions that deserves its own blog) but the damage they have done is everlasting.
I think it's easy not to be surprised by this sort of thing. We hear about it all the time, child soldiers, brain washing, mutilation and rape, mass murder, yadda yadda yadda. Oh what a terrible atrocity, yeah yeah, we get it. The fact of the matter is, it is astounding and awful and should be really, really surprising. These aren't Africans who are made to suffer, these aren't Ugandans, they are people, real people, as real as you. These are children from Christ sakes (no pun intended.) I mean, the US invades Iraq to liberate the people because we care so much about human rights, and in the meantime aid is being cut to Africa, where some of the most heinous atrocities ever take place year after year? Does that make sense? DOES IT?

Oops, sorry, don't know where that came from. For another time, I suppose.

If you want to learn more about Uganda and how to help the millions of people Joseph Kony has left in his wake, click on the site below. It's where I got most of my information.

Village of Hope Uganda

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Failed States, Part One

Failed States by Noam Chomsky is definitely not summer reading.
This book is taking me a very long time to read, and the reason for this is that I underline and bracket about fifteen things per page. This book is so hyper-informative that I fear that if I don't underline and draw arrows and write things like "We are the terrorists," in the margins, I'll never be able to keep all of this straight in my head. Similarly, I have chosen to break this very short work (only about 250 pages) into two blog entries because there is just so much to deal with. In fact, there is so much to deal with, that I think the best way to do this is to save all the editorializing and summation and moral guidelines about how we should think about ourselves as Americans and our government, for another time. For now, I just want to present you with a quick breakdown of the text itself in order to provide context.
Side note: If you choose to read this book, and about twenty pages through you find that you are having the urge to hide under your kitchen table, that is completely natural.
  • In 1955 Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell said that the world had two options: "Shall we put an end to the human race, or shall mankind renounce war?" Chomsky begins the book with this information, I think, to put it in pretty black and white terms. Einstein said war will lead to the end of the human race, our government continuously goes to and funds wars.
  • Our government is constantly breaking international deals without repercussion. In 2002 Bush promised $10 billion in African aid, and by 2005 almost none of it was dispersed. This was because Bush cut back on funding as justification for cutting unpayable African debt (that is, debt that Africa has accumulated since colonization ended, more on that in Colonization Part Two.) This loss of aid was "a death sentence for more than six million Africans a year." - Jeffrey Sachs, economist.
  • A double standard exists in our foreign policy, or rather a single standard, according to Chomsky. The war is always about their terror against us, and never are we guilty of committing acts of terror. In the 1980s Washington was involved in what Chomsky calls a "terrorist" war on Nicaragua, during which US forces were authorized to attack defenseless civilian targets.
I think I should mention at this point that I have only gotten as far as page 5. I'll try to speed things up.
  • While the US fights the "War on Terror," it routinely refuses to extradite suspected terrorists to other countries, which means that Washington routinely harbors terrorists.
  • According to a recent international poll, most countries consider France to have the most positive influence in the world, alongside Europe and China, while the US and Russia are thought to have the most negative influence. This leads me to the point of Chomsky's first chapter: nuclear holocaust.
  • As of 2005, top military officials told congress that Washington is developing outer space weaponry that could allow for instantaneous engagement anywhere on the face of the planet, subjecting everyone to constant threat of destruction. In 2004, the US accounted for 95% of space weaponization expenditures, but Russia and China have since increased their own efforts in order to defend themselves.
  • The vast increase of nuclear arms under Bush have prompted many other countries to increase their nuclear capacities, putting the US at the mercy of faulty equipment in other countries, such as Pakistan, whose nuclear facilities are anything but up-to-date. We also stand a risk of terrorist hijackings in Russia, where nukes are constantly on the move through the countryside.
  • As recently as 2005, Bush claimed that we did not know enough about global warming, despite the annual AAAS meeting which determined both human responsibility and catastrophic consequences.
  • Radicalization of the civilian population, increase in support for radical militant political Islam, the creation of a live-action urban training center for terrorists, the creation of a breeding-ground for hate, and the increase in support for Al-Quieda, and basically anyone who isn't the US, was widely predicted yet ignored before the invasion of Iraq. Most of the fighters in Iraq are not former terrorists, but became radicalized by the extreme injustice of the war itself.
  • "Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with US policies and actions in the Muslim world." - Michael Scheur, senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Bin Laden.
  • In the 1980s the US and Britain supplied Iraq with aid that included materials for nuclear weapons and strains of anthrax and biotoxins (which is a breach of international law, but the US does that all the time so whatever.) These materials were submitted as a reason to invade Iraq, then UN inspectors secured the sites at which they were located, and then they left them unguarded. As many as 109 were looted and 85% of the materials were taken. It was reported in 2005 that as many as one in eight trucks crossing from Iraq into Jordan contained nuclear materials. Donald Rumsfeld responded by saying "Stuff happens." Seriously.
  • Actually, the entire Iraq war demonstrates how low fighting terror actually ranks on the US list of priorities. Not only did Bush attack a country that was completely uninvolved in 9/11, but the Bush administration ignored over 50% of the 9/11 Commission's suggestions on how to better prepare for terrorist attacks.
  • The US Senate sharply cut rail and mass transit security in 2005, shortly before the London train and bus bombings. It was cited by Joe Biden that "as many as 100,000 people in a densely populated area could die in thirty minutes if a single, 90-ton freight car carrying chlorine were punctured." This kind of thing is indicative of the government's inability and at times refusal to actually protect people against the threat of "terror."
All of these facts are within the first chapter, and they are meant to prove this point: A failed state is one that does not protect its citizens from violence and is at the same time a danger to the world at large. I know this blog is already getting on the long side, but I think I can wrap it up with just a few more points of interest.
  • The Bush administration repeatedly committed war crimes. I know that sounds like buzz words and the kind of thing Rage Against the Machine would say, but it is a simple fact, so pervasive that it's difficult to select an appropriate example, so I'll select a couple:
  • Bush rescinded Geneva Conventions in order to alter the definition of torture despite the fact that they are the "supreme law of the land. If broken by other leaders or countries the consequences can be as severe as death if death was the result of the torture victim.
  • In 2004, US troops sealed off the exits of Falluja and bombed it to hell, killing entire families of innocent civilians. Troops then invaded and promptly overtook a hospital, despite the fact that Geneva Conventions state: "fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical service may in no circumstances be attacked."
  • Half a year later, water and food deprivations were in place in order to flush enemy troops from the civilian population, another flagrant Geneva Convention violation.
  • In May of 2005, approximately 400,000 Iraqi children were suffering from "wasting" due to insufficient food because the UN World Food program could not meet the needs of the Iraqi people.
You know, I could just go on and on, but I think I'd rather stop. The real point here is that under the Bush administration, a lot of really fantastic progress was undone, one of which being a slow crawl towards international safety and security. All of a sudden, the US decided it could just do anything it wanted to, including torture and war crimes, violating Geneva Conventions, UN Charter agreements, former treaties, and even Nuremberg Trial Precedents from way back in 1945. As a matter of fact, the very invasion of Iraq in the first place was a war crime, as it was unprompted and acted out under "preemptive self-defense," a term that is 100% complete and utter bullshit.
Next week I'll finish this up, we can see what Chomsky was really getting at, and I'll even throw in a hilarious cartoon as reward for those of you who were good and patient enough to read all of this.

Friday, June 5, 2009

College For Free 3: Colonization Part 1

During my junior year of college I took a class called "Non-western World Sociology" and it seemed to me that the basic goal of the class was to make me feel guilty about being white.
And that's not completely unfair, because as it turns out white people are basically responsible for all the most terrible things in the world. It's true, and I can prove it.

The most important thing to understand when it comes to colonization is that white people, primarily the "western" nations of Europe, were not always all that important in the global scheme of things. There's a pretty good reason that basic "world" history in U.S. elementary schools goes something like this: Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then we skip about 1500 years to the Revolutionary War. The reason is that during the omitted periods, if white people weren't doing nothing, they were doing some pretty heinous stuff that's hard to explain to elementary school students.
This obviously excludes Shakespeare. It does not, however, exclude Christopher Columbus.

Europe wasn't doing much of anything up until the 1500s. In the meantime, Africa, the Middle East (or Ottoman Empire) and China were all involved heavily in trade and they were all doing pretty well. Africa had indoor plumbing while Europeans were throwing buckets of their own excrement out into the streets and jump-starting the Black Plague. The Middle-East was the world's center of commerce and they were inventing all sorts of neat stuff, like banks and accountants and checks. And then there's China, and obviously they were doing well because China is doing well like 99% of the time throughout the history of the world.
Anyways, Europe was basically excluded from this prosperous club because they had nothing to offer. I actually heard that when travelers from the Middle-East came to Europe they returned with tales of horror and filth that no one in their home countries could believe. Likewise, when Europeans traveled to the Middle-East, they returned with stories of palaces and wealth and cleanliness that no one in their home countries could believe.
So, since Europe wasn't doing so hot in the world as they knew it, they figured it was time to go find some more world. They set sail and discovered a place they could claim for their own, even though it had already been settled for millions of years and had been rediscovered multiple times by multiple countries.
"Whatever," Europe said, "it's ours."
I think one of the most interesting things about European expansion to the Americas is that 90% of all Native Americans died within 50 years of European contact from disease alone. Because Native Americans were living in a less densely populated, more healthy and sensible way overall, their immunities didn't stand a chance against the rampant disease the Europeans brought with them. So, it seems that centuries of soaking in their own filth actually turned out to be an advantage to the Europeans. Go figure.
Another very interesting thing to note is that this is point at which racism is invented. Oh yeah, that's right. While there has been persecution and wars and discrimination in the past, historically we don't see people thinking in really racist terms until the European colonization of the Americas. Never before in history had people been deemed "less human" because of the color of their skin. The reason for this is something called clinal variation, which quickly summarized means that if you were to travel from Spain to Japan by foot, you would see a gradual change in the people as you went, so that by the time you reached Eastern Asia and saw how different people looked, you would still fully understand that they were people because you got there just a little bit at a time. This is not the case for Europe's arrival in America, where a long ocean journey eliminated slow changes over time.
To me, this all seems like the dumbest, worst smelling kid in school getting picked on too much in his own grade so he starts bullying the first-graders. (Native Americans are only equated with first-graders here because they don't have guns.)
So, with 90% of the population wiped out and something like the remaining 9% soon to perish, the Europeans had no trouble ransacking the entirety of the Americas. They got a lot of good stuff out of it, not the least of which was slave labor, but mostly they got gold, and with it they were able to build up their home countries back in Europe and begin the awful, awful process of colonization.

At this point, I really think it's important to keep in mind that all the atrocities that Europe committed against the world from the 1500s on were made possible through the wealth of gold they accumulated in the Americas, and that gold is only created in the last ten minutes of a 10 million year old star's life. I can't really put my finger on the significance of this, but I do think that it's too strange to be ignored.

Next week: Colonization Part 2, How White People Ruined the World

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide

"All you really need to know for the moment is that the universe is a lot more complicated than you might think, even if you start from a position of thinking it's pretty damn complicated in the first place," - The Hitchhiker's Guide 2.0

I cannot even really begin to explain to you how much I like this book. It is absolutely brilliant, that's the first thing I should mention. Something absolutely hilarious is happening on every single page, and all the while the plot is doing these amazing, twisting, things. The effect of this is that each individual sentence is gratifying while being part of an overall masterpiece and completely amazing read in general.
If you never read another book in your life, you should probably read this book. Or, rather, these five books, and a short story. Though the short story's not that important.
For the sake of making this blog easier, as it stands a pretty good chance of getting really complicated, I should probably clarify this right now: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide is a novel composed of five other books that were all released separately. So, from now on in the blog, when I refer to "the first book" or "the fourth book" I mean the books within the work as a whole, and when I mean the novel I mean the overall story arc achieved by combining all the books into one work.
What I really want to examine, out of the millions of things to examine in this novel, are the two main points that I think Douglas Adams makes, whether he was even aware of it or not. The two main themes of the novel are: Attempting to define the universe, and trying to find happiness against the backdrop of utter infinity.

The attempt to define the universe is a constant presence in this novel. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while being the name of the first book, is also a book that the character's carry around with them. It is a guide for all the travelers of the universe, and given the amount of universe that is out there and the time it takes to collect the information, the guide is almost always wrong about something or other, and makes no excuses for that. Similarly, it is mentioned briefly at the beginning of the fourth book that a census was put out for the galaxy, and it wasn't particularly useful because it just told everyone what they already knew. The only new information that the census provided was that all creatures have 2.4 legs and own a hyena. As this was obviously wrong, the entire census had to be scrapped.
Basically, throughout the novel it is made clear that there is a kind of utter futility in understanding the universe. One man, at the end of the third book, is given too much truth serum before going into court, and when he is told to tell the truth, whole truth, and nothing but the truth, he does just that. The end result is that he dies laughing.
Also, at one point we encounter the ruler of the universe, who is expected to know everything but in fact knows nothing. I mean, really, nothing. He talks to the table for a week to see what it does. He doesn't assume that anything he perceives is real because it's all just a perception, just sensory input that can't be trusted as truth.
One of the most classic bits in this book is that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is 42. This answer was arrived at by an ancient super computer named Deep Thought millions of years ago. The people that built him couldn't understand the answer, and Deep Thought told them that was because they had the answer but didn't have the question. In order to obtain the question, they would need an even more powerful computer, a whole planet actually, whose organic lifeforms would be part of it's hardware.
This computer was the Earth, but unfortunately it was destroyed five minutes before the answer, or rather the question, was obtained.
In short, the universe is never understood, fundamentally cannot be understood, and by the end of the novel as a whole, understanding it becomes so obviously impossible the main character, a fellow named Arthur Dent, isn't even trying anymore. All he's trying to do is be happy, and the way to be happy is to just not think very much.
Douglas Adams goes to great lengths to demonstrate that not thinking and not understanding the universe are the keys to happiness. In the face of utterly infinite probabilities and possibilities, in a universe where socket wrenches grow on trees on some planets and the improbabilities of restaurant mathematics can power spaceships, all one can really do is get drunk and lie on a beach with good looking women.
The two most consistently successful characters in the novel, Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox, are adamant followers of this philosophy. Whenever presented with a major problem, their solution will inevitably be to escape the problem all together and get drunk. In fact, intentionally not knowing (and by this I mean blocking off an entire section of his brain) is how Zaphod is able to become President of the Galaxy and steal the greatest spaceship ever built. However, his success is sort of diminished by the fact that the knowledge he blocked off was that he planned to reach the ruler of the universe, who knows nothing, and thusly the whole point is pretty much moot.
So, it is clear that happiness is hindered by the attempt to understand the universe.
Not knowing also comes in very handy if you want to fly. Flying, this novel says, is the art of throwing yourself at the ground and missing. The way you miss is to become suddenly distracted at the last minute and forget that you're going to hit the ground, and then to not think about the fact that you didn't hit the ground or you will.

The utter down note that the novel ends on is this: In the complete infinity of the universe, no one fits anywhere, especially when multiple dimensions and parallel universes get thrown in the mix. Happiness is elusive and almost impossible to achieve unless you are completely ignorant of the rest of the universe and the complication and confusion it causes. Of course, once you are aware of it all, trying to settle down and simply make sandwiches for the rest of your life isn't really an option anymore.
This tone starts to set in at about page 500. While the first three books are completely hilarious and preposterous and just down right silly, the last two books take a more somber look at the people who have to deal with this infinite silliness as an everyday reality. Like, you wouldn't want a clown showing you magic tricks on the same day that both your parents died in a car wreck. You just wouldn't be in the mood. That's sort of what the universe does to these characters. It never stops joking, it never starts being easier to understand, it's just a completely overwhelmingly horrifyingly enormous and complicated thing that basically just wrecks your life at every possible turn.
I feel that the basic message is that, while there is a universe, and maybe other universes, and an infinite amount of everything, it is more important to focus on your own personal universe and the perceptions and memories and realities that are true to you, not true in the big scheme, because you will never actually truly understand that.
Most importantly: Don't Panic.